Today, I’m taking a page out of my own blog’s book, and answering a WU mailbag question. Here it is:
My novel may require some research, just to make sure the situations I’m putting my characters into are even plausible. For example: Marta has an ulcer. She poor. The free clinic she went to would have given her free antibiotics, but there was a shortage of prescription drugs. So she sends her son to the pharmacy and he discovers there’s also shortage of the drug the doctor prescribed. Since the story starts out in Guadalajara, Mexico, I had to call my friends there to see if there were any free clinics in Mexico. So, the question: How much can you make up in fiction? I mean, after all, isn’t it make believe. (I’m referring to novels written in a more realist way — not science fiction, I know they have to create entire worlds.)
This is a great question, and one that I have some experience with, especially since in my first book, my character wrestled with very specific medical situations that I thought were critical to get right. My rule of thumb – and the reason I’m responding to the question is that I bet other writers have different rules of thumb, so I’m curious to hear them – is that if something is a fact in real life, then you should make it fact in your book. If there aren’t free clinics in Mexico, don’t include them in your book because someone, somewhere, will know that you screwed up an easily checkable fact, and this will discredit a lot of the rest of your writing. Don’t claim that the sun rises in the east. That’s not fiction. Don’t cite medical treatments that, with a little research, would prove faulty and look amateurish. That’s not fiction either. Don’t screw up geography that most readers can easily draw upon – you will never hear the end of it in your inbox. In Time of My Life, I mentioned that my character googled something in the year 2001. Google was up and running back then, but that hasn’t stopped readers from occasionally emailing me to let me know that they thought that it wasn’t.
Where can you take liberties? With a lot of other things. In Time of My Life, I invented a lot of restaurants and bars and various places that had nothing to do with actual fact, and in The One That I Want, I invent my heroine’s hometown entirely. Readers accept that this happens in fiction and don’t hold it against you. In fact, with The One That I Want, I almost felt that it was CRITICAL to invent an entire town in my mind, as if building my character – and her hometown that she is so tied to – from scratch. That said, I was conscious of making her situation within that town realistic: that she was at a position in her job that was realistic for her education level, that references to bordering states and/or cities were accurate, that specifics of pregnancy (or attempts for pregnancy) were also by-the-book. Because, again, if a reader is flying through the pages and all of the sudden thinks, “Huh? I know that in real life, she can’t be pregnant because of XYZ,” you lose them.
Ultimately, you’re creating fiction, but you’re asking readers to take it seriously, to dive into a new world with the idea that in some way, it’s believable. So my advice is to stick to the fact when indeed there are facts to stick to. Take liberties with the imaginary aspects of your writing – and that can be most of it – but when it comes to the nitty-gritty, get it right.
Picture courtesy Flickr’s Xymena